Rats, razor blades and refs shouldn't mix
For once, it was understandable although not necessarily right that Arsene Wenger complained.
No two ways about it: his team, Arsenal, should have been awarded a penalty when its substitute striker Carlos Vela was hacked down in front of goal by Alberto Rodriguez, a Peruvian defender for Portuguese side Braga.
Because this was Champions League football, Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai had two extra assistants to help him. Two extra pairs of eyes that are meant to spot and help weed out the cheaters who push, shove, trip and otherwise foul in the box. Two extra pairs of eyes that European football boss Michel Platini hopes will, with time, demonstrate that referees don't need video replays to aid their officiating, because humans - in sufficient numbers - can do the job just fine.
Well, back to the drawing board.
That Rodriguez's thrusting tackle should have been declared a foul was as obvious as a bright red London bus. Vela, a lithe Mexican goal-scorer who came off the bench just moments earlier in place of winger Theo Walcott, had a choice: stay rooted to the spot and risk a broken bone from Rodriguez's lunge or dive for safety. Instinctively, he leapt, and tripped over Rodriguez's outstretched leg, too.
Instead of giving a penalty, Kassai decided that Vela dived deliberately to trick him into awarding a spot-kick. Out came a yellow card for Vela, and out went the notion that Platini's experiment with extra officials to better police the goal area will settle, once and for all, the long-running debate about whether humans or video technology can best bring more justice to the pitch.
Arsenal's defense, porous and switching on and off like a dying lightbulb, was largely to blame for the London side's 2-0 defeat on Tuesday night. Then again, the result might have been different had Kassai and his assistants given that penalty in the 77th minute, when the score was still 0-0. Even with all of its extra eyes, the enlarged team of Kassai plus four Hungarian assistant referees still made a sorry mistake.
"I would like to see what the fifth official is doing," Wenger fumed afterward. "We have the proof again tonight that it's absolutely useless, this system."
So what's to be done? Is video the way forward? Installing that technology could be expensive and there'd be annoying interruptions as match officials pause to watch replays.
Or do the extra officials need more time to prove their worth? Football's rule-makers will need to take a decision on that fairly rapidly if they are to have five officials, instead of the previous three, in place for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The only easy answer is this: no matter what aids are adopted, referees will always make mistakes. It is impossible for them not to. Respected managers like Wenger should remind fans of that. Instead of being quick to whine about refs, they should admit that their players and/or tactics were poor, as Arsenal's were in Portugal.
Otherwise, pushed to extremes, you get what's happening in Scotland. Referees there have voted to strike this coming weekend because irate fans and managers have ignored the human truth that match officials can only be fallible.
Scottish media reports of the outrages suffered by referees there make depressing reading. Razor blades and dead rats sent to them in the post. Smashed windows. Phoned threats to the home of Willie Collum, reportedly including a caller who menaced his wife and children, after he officiated last month's derby between Rangers and Celtic.
Platini was there for that match, witnessing for himself the ferocious rivalry between those Glasgow teams.
"These people are going to make mistakes and to be a referee I think you have to be a masochist," the UEFA president told the Scottish Football Association's web site. "The system is bad and I have known this for 40 years."
In other words, football authorities know that referees are struggling but have been slow to help.
Just as tough to deal with, says a now retired Scottish referee who officiated there for two decades, is the "water torture" of constant taunts and snide remarks that match officials suffer off the pitch, when they're out shopping with their families, for instance, or working their day jobs.
Scotland's soccer authorities say they sympathize. The Scottish FA's chief executive, Stewart Regan, said he fully understands "why incessant scrutiny, criticism and questioning of their integrity has brought them to the brink of a withdrawal of labor."
Yet the SFA says it might fly in Irish or Scandinavian referees if its own refuse to blow their whistles this weekend.
Fine. Even if a strike is avoided or circumvented so that the footballing show can go on, Scottish referees will have a successfully made a point that applies to their colleagues everywhere: They try to do their best in tough circumstances and, for that, they deserve respect not hounding.
Bottom line: without referees, we'd have no football at all.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.